If you're anything like me , once the holidays are over you begin to experience that bit of sun deprived depression, commonly known as SAD. I swore for years that I didn't suffer from this fairly common malady, but my husband did so I learned everything that could to try to help him. I can even remember one funny day around 20 years ago when in a fit of despair I changed almost every light in the house to grow lights. You know what? It worked and as strange as it seemed, he became cheerier!
I've had to face facts though and finally realize that he's not the only one in the house who gets a bit stir crazy from the lack of light. It helps if you can get away to a sunny climate for a bit, but my experiences with that have left me a bit topsy turvy and physically confused. There's something a bit disconcerting about putting yourself into an airplane and rearranging your molecules for a few hours to simply grab a bit of sunshine when your body's steeped in midwinter. I tend to gage my responses to the natural world by the animals that I live with and right now, they're all hibernating. My cats, dogs and horses all beginning putting on a bit of extra fat in September and every one of them has an extra layer of fur, even the ones who never go outside. They nap all of the time and wake up naturally when they're hungry. What a life! The winter air is so still outside with only the occasional flutter of scarlet wings or the piercing cry of a hawk to remind me that spring will eventually return!
I don't have the luxury that our animal companions do so over the years I've had to learn to cope with the piercing cold and grey skies. For me this is made a little more complicated because I suffer from a really strange allergy that I've had since childhood, a little known condition called Cold Urticaria , which is an extreme histamine response to cold air and water temperatures. This was discovered when I was ten years old, always a strong swimmer I dove into a hotel pool one autumn and woke up in the hospital. This allergy is instant onset and I guess that as soon as I hit the water, I passed out.
At the same time, they discovered that my body was covered in hives. It took years before anyone in the medical community began to understand the connection between the temperature and the symptoms, but because from that point on it didn't stop I learned how to deal with it. I can't tell you how many times I almost drowned before they began to take me seriously. Now an allergist will prescribe antihistamines and certain antidepressants for anyone who has this strange malady but for me that's not the answer because they just dull my senses. For me, some of the answers lie in watching my animal companions and mimicking how they deal with the colder temperatures.
My physical response to cold temperatures isn't just a product of living in Cleveland, as it can happen anywhere that the temperature outside my body begins to compete with my core. I've learned to swim seal-like in my beloved ocean in July with a full wetsuit, which makes all of the surfers laugh but allows me to fully participate! Half of learning to deal with an allergy such as this is learning to not live in denial about it. I spent years trying to prove to myself that there was nothing wrong because I got teased alot! During my teenage years, I've developed an exceptionally good party trick, which was to put a beer bottle with raised letters on my arm and remove it. Within minutes the letters would show up as the preliminary hives would form. It was great fun, but in all seriousness I'm one who's had to learn to cope with the temperature extremes as a matter of life or death and I've got a few good tips to help anyone who's suffering from the winter blues right about now!
For starters when you wake up, slowly increase your core temperature with a lovely herbal tea not coffee which is too stimulating and actually makes you colder because your adrenal system and your liver works too hard to process it. Tisanes made of warming spices like cinnamon and ginger will do the same thing if you let them and not cause a nasty drop in your blood pressure after the energy spike. Afterwards, take a nice hot shower or bath and try using a salt scrub or a brush to awaken your skin. I love salt and sugar scrubs because they leave bit of extra oil on your skin which acts as an insulator, a tip I learned from the ducks that lived on my pond! I've started incorporating a few yoga stretches in the shower, the hot steamy water seems to make them much easier and they awaken my spine.
Then get dressed and make yourself a hot breakfast. Promise me that you'll do this! Try to make it one that has a bit of a fat or protein. Even if you are vegan or vegetarian this is easy....just make the appropriate substitutions, for example instead of mayonnaise try vegannaise and Earth balance makes a wonderful butter substitute. I've never understood why some (and this includes my darling husband who's always cold!) insist upon eating a cold breakfast in the winter. For cereal lovers, oatmeal with stewed fruit and a bit of butter, oil or cream is a good start or cream of wheat if you don't like oatmeal. One of my favorite breakfasts in the winter is a bowl of brown rice served piping hot , swirled with cinnamon , nuts, raisins, maple syrup and some coconut milk or fresh cream. My mother figured this out for me early and would serve me an open faced toasted cheese sandwich in the mornings that she made with whole wheat bread, a bit of mayonnaise, a slice of tomato and American cheese.
I always make sure when it's this cold to protect my extremities, a simple thought but amazing how many people do not. Because of my allergy, as soon as my hands or feet get cold I begin to lose heat from my core. Good gloves are a must and so is a good snow hat. Start your car ahead of time and let it warm up and if you're really in the mood to splurge have a remote starter installed. Getting into a freezing car just makes your body work way too hard to retain its warmth!
When it's this cold I tend to avoid chilly foods but I eat more frequently keeping my meals and snacks light, but drinking lots of teas and eating plenty of seasonal foods like root vegetables , grains and more animal flesh than I usually do. I used to try to go vegetarian throughout the year but my body just can't handle it and I gain a lot more weight than if I simply eat the foods that I start craving when it gets really cold. Soups are a wonderful addition to a cold weather diet and so are whole grain breads. Don't forget to add cayenne if you can tolerate it and ginger and curry too. Any of these will help warm you to the bone, which is what we're going for! I love salads, but they just make me colder. I tend to eat alot of warm salads and composed salads during the winter, things with hot dressings and nuts, cheese, squash, beets and potato. Hot cocoa made with really good shaved chocolate almond milk, agave nectar and spiked with cinnamon and cayenne pepper is a luxurious way to enjoy something creamy and sweet and toasty warm!
The last part of the equation for me when it comes to staying warm all winter is getting the proper amount of hibernation aka sleep:) We've recently switched from a standard box spring to a memory foam mattress and I'm already noticing the difference in the way that my body feels. My issue is that if I don't get enough sleep or if my sleep is interrupted , I just can't function very well because my body loses a lot of warmth from the anxiety of tossing and turning all night and waking really tired. We've recently begun to use a humidifier which really helps because we not only breath better but our bodies stay hydrated through the night. My mothers old fashioned habit of keeping room temperature water to sip on her nightstand has begun to make sense as well because If I'm dehydrated my body has to work twice as hard when I wake in the morning. Nightclothes that breathe are a must and so are sheets that are not synthetic. Another trick that I've recently discovered is to utilize the sound therapy known as White Noise! My iphone has a wonderful app that allows me to choose what I want to fall asleep to, whether it be a thunder storm, ocean waves, or crickets. Lately, I've been falling asleep to the sounds of the Amazonian jungle and I wake to the same, feeling refreshed and happy. I'm not really sure why it works so well, but I do have the theory that repetitive, soothing sounds like these tap into our nervous systems almost like a mantra does when you meditate, promoting real relaxation at the deepest levels. If all else fails , a cup of warm coconut or almond milk laced with a little bit of vanilla and a tablespoon of sherry will always send my insomnia running for the hills and if you've got a partner get naked and make love as much as possible.....A great sex life is THE perfect antidote to the winter blues; ramping up the adrenals and bringing all of your blood to the surface, keeping you nice and warm!
It's my hope that you'll remember this article if you know someone who seems to suffer more than average from exposure to colder temperatures. Cold Urticaria isn't common, it afflicts only about 2% of the population. But it is instant onset and can strike very suddenly and can easily be fatal. If someone you know seems to get hives from exposure to cold water temperatures or what appears to be an asthma attack when they are exposed to cold air they may very well suffer from this little understood allergy and not know it. If someone that you know claims to feel as if their muscles have become so heavy that they can't focus and they have been exposed to the cold take it seriously because the next thing that usually happens is that their blood pressure drops and their breathing begins to be compromised. If the person that you're with begins to get dizzy from the cold air or water the most important thing to do is bring their internal core temperature back up SLOWLY but deliberately. Too much warmth TOO fast can exacerbate the histamine reaction and stop their breathing. If they want water, make sure that it's lukewarm. One of the dangers of Cold Urticaria is that cold liquids can make the throat swell, making breathing even harder and in a person having an attack hot water can do the same thing.
If you suspect that you might also be suffering from this allergy, the simplest diagnosis comes from an ice cube test that you can do at home. It's the equivalent of my beer bottle trick and it's very accurate. It's what the allergist will do. Just take an ice cube and put it on the soft flesh of your inner arm for about 5 minutes. WIthin the first few minutes your arm should start to itch and then you'll see the hives begin to form. If this happens, call a good allergist and don't worry.
If you are one of the 2% like me who suffers from this allergy, don't fight it and don't ignore it. I realize that most people think that you're making it up. It's very real and is just so strange that you'll be tempted to deny it's existence. Don't do it! I did for years and made my life even more complicated until I realized that there was nothing strange about having it. I learned to take care of myself and so will you. If you suffer from Cold Urticaria and you need help, please feel free to write me at anytime at email@example.com.
Cocoa pot photo courtesy of Le Creuset , Oatmeal Phot Courtesy of McCanns Irish Oatmeal
All other photos by Beth Schreibman Gehring and may not be used without permission